When I was growing up in a suburb of Austin, Texas, the neighbor across the street had a small flock of backyard hens that were a perennial subject of discussion and fascination for my family of city slickers. I heard all sorts of stories over the years about the travails of inconsistent egg production, marauding raccoons, and chicken social dynamics, which I found both surprising and somewhat disturbing. Contrary to their soft and feathery appearance, chickens can be quite mean and the term “pecking order” is not just an idiom. When my neighbor introduced a new chicken to his established flock, the other hens pecked and plucked at the hapless new bird viciously, to the point that her once-feathery head became nearly bald. My neighbor expected the chickens to eventually accept their new coop cohabitant, but weeks passed and the pecking continued unabated. The eventual solution to the problem was rehoming the new chicken with a friendlier flock elsewhere.
When my project team at Design@USC decided to explore the interconnected problems of bullying, adolescent mental health, and school safety for our most recent project, this was the story that immediately popped into my head and wouldn’t leave. So, rather than starting off my research with the deep dive into research papers, think pieces, and news articles that’s all too familiar to me from past endeavors, I decided to embrace lateral thinking. Perhaps the tangentially related issue of chicken bullying would turn up something interesting. At worst, I would finally get some insight into the mysterious happenings in the chicken coop across the street all those years ago.
A Brief Explanation of Chicken Bullying
Chickens, like many other animals, have evolved to embrace a strict social order within their flocks. Initially establishing this order involves a lot of conflict as the chickens fight each other and jostle for position. However, the tumultuous period during initial order establishment is relatively short and once the order is determined, the conflict subsides to occasional scuffles.
Bullying among chickens is a sustained pattern of behavior that is separate from establishing the pecking order. It doesn’t have an end goal other than hurting the bullied chicken, and it can get absolutely brutal. Chickens have a disturbing proclivity for ganging up and pecking viciously at open wounds. If this is allowed to continue until the wounded chicken is killed, the other chickens will proceed to eat it. (Yeah, that’s right, chickens are opportunistic cannibals. Sometimes the circle of life is a real bummer.)
Bullying is most common when a new chicken or group of chickens is introduced to an existing pecking order. To head this off, a common method is to introduce the two flocks slowly by keeping the new chickens in a fenced off area near the rest of the flock for the first few days before eventually removing the fence and letting the chickens mingle. An outbreak of bullying can also occur among an established flock, though. One article listed four root causes that are the most common triggers. They are:
Connections to Human Bullying
I didn’t start with a particularly strong expectation that understanding chickens would help me understand bullying in human students. It was more a matter of indulging my own curiosity than anything else. But nonetheless, something about chicken politics felt strangely familiar. The initial chaos of jockeying for position followed by occasional skirmishes to test the established social order, the bullying with the intent to harm, the proclivity to attack an open wound… that’s not just chickens. That’s middle school.
The introduction of new peers, stress, boredom, and sickness (although perhaps tilted more towards the mental than the physical variety) all made perfect sense as relevant triggers for middle school bullying, but overcrowding wasn’t an intuitive answer to me. Interestingly enough, though, I found a few studies that indicate overcrowding in prisons is a major exacerbating factor for suicide and one South African study citing overcrowding as a contributor to school violence. It wasn’t at all unreasonable to think that overcrowding in schools could be having a negative effect on student mental health. This was an issue I had never thought to consider in my initial approach to understanding the problem.
Chicken Problems, Chicken Solutions?
If chickens and sixth graders have some of the same problems, could any of the same solutions that apply to chickens have relevance for humans? It was worth exploring.
The first obvious solution candidate was some application of the slow staged introduction. My memory of entering sixth grade was that everyone showed up on the first day of school having never met the vast majority of their classmates before. For high school, however, the school district did seem to have employed a variation of this strategy. Towards the tail end of eighth grade, all future freshmen from both contributing middle schools were sent on a week-long outdoor education trip together. My memory of this trip is hazy, but I remember embarking on a variety of team-building exercises in groups that were roughly 50/50 mixes of students from the two different middle schools. I wondered why a similar activity wasn’t undertaken before entering sixth grade, when four different elementary schools combined. I also wondered if elementary schools of origin were being taken into account when building class schedules; perhaps keeping kids from each elementary school together in at least a few classes during during their first year of middle school would be a more successful approach than complete integration on day one. This was a potentially promising line of questioning that would require more in-depth research.
Apart from the gradual integration of new peers, there is a whole world of innovative solutions aimed at resolving chicken conflicts that may or may not be tied to a new flock member.
Negative reinforcement was one proposed option. The suggestion is to stand by the chicken yard with a loaded water gun and squirt a bullying chicken as soon as it pecks at its target. Negative reinforcement isn’t exactly a groundbreaking idea and this didn’t strike me as a tactic that I wanted to pursue further, although the mental image of a school administrator blasting a bully in the hallway with a SuperSoaker was enjoyable nonetheless.
A different tactic employed a physical solution: a clever device called pinless peepers indirectly prevents a chicken from pecking other birds by blocking the front part of its vision. By blocking vision at the angle needed to effectively peck other chickens, the peepers stop the harmful pecking without disrupting any of the chicken’s other activities. The idea of a physical solution seemed less relevant, but the idea of indirectly blocking the bad behavior by making targets inaccessible was interesting. It was almost reminiscent of blocking someone on Instagram, or, taken to its darkest extreme, that one episode of Black Mirror.
Another category of solution was alleviating chicken boredom, which is a particularly serious problem during the winter months when there aren’t as many bugs to chase. There are all sorts of activities that chickens enjoy, including chasing a rolling treat dispenser full of worms and jumping at a tasty piece of cabbage hung just out of easy reach, which one website christened with the truly amazing name of “cabbage tetherball.” A cursory Google search revealed studies that boredom increases bullying in students, too. Could reducing boredom work as an anti-bullying strategy? This idea was certainly intriguing.
Exploring the phenomenon of bullying among chickens yielded a surprising number of insights and connections to the subject matter of bullying among humans. Chickens didn’t give me a silver bullet to solving the human version of the problem, but it did give me new ideas that I probably wouldn’t have generated had I stuck strictly to researching the prompt. Researching something off-topic can feel like a waste of time. After this exercise, however, I plan to be more indulgent of my own curiosity in the future. Even if none of these ideas prove to be worth pursuing within the context of this project, perhaps someday I can point a friend with chicken trouble in the direction of pinless peepers.